Old KKK Town Embraces Its Immigrants, Legal or Not

When the white vans of Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) roll through sleepy Hightstown, N.J., word spreads quickly.

Mayor Bob Patten is usually the first to be awakened with an early morning call as desperate wives who watch their husbands whisked away in handcuffs need his help.

"Latinos are always on alert," said Patten, who does most of his business on foot in this one-square-mile town. "Whispers get out through e-mail, cell phones — who knows if they fly their flags in a different direction, but they go underground because they are afraid."

The well-funded Department of Homeland Security has ratcheted up its deportation raids in recent months, especially in so-called sanctuary cities. When New Haven, Conn., issued ID cards to its undocumented residents in June, ICE agents swept in and deported 29 immigrants.

In the island resort community of Nantucket, Mass., after 31 immigrants cooperated in a murder investigation, local police called federal authorities and had them deported.

Just this month the House of Representatives voted to withhold federal emergency services funding from cities that protect illegal immigrants.

Federal raids shake up a small community, and mayors like Patten have to pick up the pieces. Immigrants — legal and illegal — shun all authorities, even those there to help them. Fires and robberies go unreported. Anxious schoolchildren are kept at home. And employers lose good workers.

At least 1,300 Latinos, most of them Ecuadorian, live in this all-American town of white steeple churches and tri-color Victorians. Mostly legal, they make up about 30 percent of the population, working in neighboring fast food restaurants and warehouses.

According to the Seton Hall Study on Work, New Jersey — with the highest per capita income in the United States and the need for a healthy work force — is home to about 500,000 undocumented immigrants.

An estimated 100 live in Hightstown, according to a United Way Study of Mercer County.

Like other small, once homogenous towns, Hightstown is at the crossroads of the national immigration debate. With immigration reform now dead in Congress, communities like Danbury, Conn., and Hazelton, Pa., are cracking down and enforcing what they see as failed federal policy.

In Palm City, Fla., police patrol cars chase down illegal immigrants. Deputies arrest them on charges such as trespassing, loitering, hiding out in someone's yard, reckless driving, or for speeding off in a car, according to The Associated Press.

"It's not wrong for them to run, but it's not wrong for us to chase them either," said Sheriff Frank McKeithen, who faces criticism from civil liberties groups after setting up a task force to target construction sites.

But in Hightstown — once the regional headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and home to race riots in the 1970s — officials are fighting old attitudes with newfound compassion.

"How can you not want to help these people?" said Patten. "They have a lot of strikes against them already — their skin, their language, their customs are different and their education is less than most who live here."

At 62, Patten has retained his boyish looks, sporting a retro crew cut. A former gym teacher, he and his wife Kathy — also a teacher — are a tag team, working for immigration reform and smoothing misperceptions between Latinos and longtime residents.

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